My Week as a Wildlife Conservationist

Having just left university you can imagine my boyfriend and I are not loaded. In a bid to do something cheap and fun with our days off we headed down to the Devon coast for a working holiday, where we worked in exchange for food and board for a week with the rangers of Arlington Court.

I embarked on a week in a pokey bunkhouse overlooking a glittering turquoise sea, rocky outcrops and picturesque hills with thirteen strangers I’d never met before. As you can imagine, it was unusual.

Landscape Surveys

With the announcement of a new Hunger Games I never felt more like Katniss, wrapped in a light waterproof, wearing thick leather boots and loose, muddy black trousers wondering the forest undergrowth, crawling over streams and trudging up mud in fields, all the while measuring plant life and tracking nature. With a quick lesson in fauna and flora from the ranger, we did a couple of squares in meadows and woodlands, as we tried to identify the foliage they had across the property to discern its progress in future surveys.

Measuring Plant Diversity and River Life

Pizza, Bats and Moths

The highlight of the holiday for me was Wednesday evening. We lit an open air pizza oven and topped pizza ready to cook and eat al fresco. Being the future ranger that I’ll never be I learnt to use an axe and chopped up the hard and soft wood for kindling while my boyfriend and the rangers stocked the open fire, the rest of the group topping pizzas eagerly. It wasn’t long before we had a smokey flame and finally a hot enough oven for our pizzas.

You may think my axe swinging evening was the highlight but, hold on dear reader, it gets better. Grabbing the rangers adorable Labrador, Dasher, we set off to the house at twilight and watched the bat camera, seeing the bats leaving their nests in Arlington Court’s attic. We saw between 90 and 120 bats stretch their wings and prepare for flight. Then we grabbed some ultrasonic bat sensors and stood in their flight paths. With mine and my friends sensor angled at the drain, going off with intermittent chimes as it picked up the bats echolocation, I stood in the dimming twilight as bats wizzed around my head, some even somersulting in front of us as if they’re showing off.

Dragging our slightly reluctant Labrador friend we headed to the lake and shone our torch across it, attracting moths to the lakes surface. The bats were quick to cotton on and, as our sonic sensors went mad, we watched in the torchlight as the bats ducked and dived along the waters surface as they ate the moths. In the dim lighting we did pick up two massive fish at the waters edge, probably the length of a leg, and Dasher, being the fearsome dog he is (think Fang from Harry Potter), was quick to cower when we were startled by them.

The bats were, of course, the highlight of my evening (by this point night), but our adventures weren’t yet over for the day as we all crowded round a light beacon and helped catch moths with a professional. We veered around the lake in an attempt to keep the bats away from the crowding moths jumping near the open light of the moth trap, and I admired their pretty wings and furry bodies as we attempted to identify them. The traps filled up overnight and we headed back the next morning to find a plethora of colour waiting: almost like butterflies I learnt the names of green, yellow, black, pink and speckled moths as they lay sleeping at the bottom of the mouth trap. My favourite moth that we caught can be seen below, a surprisingly common hawk moth.

Hawk Moth

Butterfly Surveys

Hunting for the third rarest species in Europe we trekked through marshes and meadows trying to find a certain type of butterfly, last seen in these parts thirty years ago, called the Marsh Fertilary. Despite damp conditions, after wading under a car bridge in a gushing stream, we emerged onto some neglected fields that seemed a promising home for butterflies and soon we found plenty fluttering around. Most of the group tailed off after lunch to have a cup of tea after the mornings adventure, but the few of us left did then venture in our wellies into the dense marshlands around the estates finding perfect habitats for these rare butterflies, although we never managed to see one.

Burnt Ruins and Water Power

On our day off we went up to a manor house that was burnt down over 100 years ago. Now reclaimed by nature, we wondered through the ruins. It was mysteriously burnt down, potentially by suffragettes, although we suspect it was insurance fraud in 1913. it’s eerie walls still shape the scenery today. We then wondered through the quant town of Lynton and Lynmouth, ventured up to the creatively named Valley of the Rocks, and finally took a joy ride up and down the highest water powered funicular cliff railway in the world. The day ended, of course, with hot chocolate and chocolate flakes.

The Famous Cliff Railway

Biodiversity Water Study

After a nice sit on a tree branch hanging over the river earlier in the week, where I was stationed to spot kingfishers and dippers and record their numbers, we were tasked with discovering what was actually in the stream with a waterways professional. Donning my stylish and borrowed wellies again we waded in with a net to catch river fly and then inspected the debris to categorise the bugs. We used the species diversities to estimate the water pollution levels.

Showing the Dormice some Love

Earlier in the week a few of the group grabbed some screwdrivers and hammers and made Dormice boxes. We travelled to a nearby farm and installed the boxes amongst the brambles, strapping them to trees, before getting a tour of the farm by the farmer as he demonstrated his conservation techniques. He described the difficulties and advantages of laying hedges, sheep rearing and storing hay and the tight rope he must tread between feeding the animals and conserving the wildlife and letting the grasses grow long for bees and butterflies. It became clear that even in rural locations conservation isn’t easy.

The Devon Coast

Can We Make a Difference

Beside my abundance of newfound knowledge about trees, grasses, moths, bats, bugs and farm animals, I’ve learnt that yes, we can make a small contribution towards conservation. Planting nectar producing flowers, like lavender, in gardens can help bees and butterflies. The butterfly specialist suggested looking out for butterflies and if you see them gravitating towards one plant, plant more of it. Leaving bits of your garden looking rougher, with a variety of longer grasses, wildflowers and even rubbish likes bricks, can encourage natural habitats and breeding grounds for butterflies. Not killing all the caterpillars on cabbages will, obviously, encourage more butterflies and buying local honey will keep bee keepers in business. If you’re really keen you can do water fly surveys for the waterways agency.

In Conclusion

Was this holiday the unusual, cheap break were after? Yes. Definitely, and I’ll definitely be going on another working holiday soon. The activities were excellent, I learnt lots, and now appreciate the wildlife, nature and conservation in a way I didn’t before. Lastly, I met a wonderful group of friends and made some fabulous memories. Topping those off being us all climbing the hills one last time on the last night and watching the sun set over Wales on the summer solstice. So long, Devon, hope to see you again soon.

Sunset on the Solstice